Forgotten Bestsellers: Koko by Peter Straub

Today’s bestsellers are tomorrow’s remainders and Forgotten Bestsellers will run for the next five weeks as a reminder that we were once all in a lather over books that people barely even remember anymore. Have we forgotten great works of literature? Or were these books never more than literary mayflies in the first place? What better time of year than the holiday season for us to remember that all flesh is dust and everything must die?

For years, I was more familiar with the striking colors on the cover of Peter Straub’s Koko than with its actual contents. Debuting on the New York Times Bestseller’s List in October, 1988, it stayed on the list for eight weeks, rising as high as number six, before disappearing in late November. It won the 1989 World Fantasy Award. In Donald Ringnalda’s Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War it’s called, “possibly the most intensive, complex exploration of the war’s imprint on the American psyche yet published,” and no less a horror personage than Laird Barron calls it “A black odyssey on par with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.”

But there was something unsavory and sensual about that cover with its green, eyeless face, and red, kissable lips that kept me away until this past summer when I finally read the old mass market paperback copy of Koko I had lying around, and decided that I would write this series of Forgotten Bestseller columns for Tor specifically so I could talk about it. Because Koko is a masterpiece.

Before co-authoring The Talisman with Stephen King, Peter Straub was turning out a novel every two or three years, becoming a bestselling author with Ghost Story and further cementing his reputation with Floating Dragon and Shadowland. Two of his books had been made into big budget movies (the successful but unsatisfactory Ghost Story starring Fred Astaire in 1981 and the forgotten but terrific Full Circle starring Mia Farrow in 1977) and he regularly hit the New York Times bestseller list. But after The Talisman…nothing. Worried that he’d never write anything truly great again, for four years he scratched away in five giant journals, slowly piecing together the novel that would become Koko. The result is a book about which Straub himself says, “I think I managed to reach a new level.” He’s not wrong.

The book has as many detractors as admirers, and those who are lured in by the flashing neon sign of “horror” will most likely walk away disappointed. It’s better suited for people who enjoy Stephen King’s more character-driven work like Cujo and Dolores Claiborne (King gets all up in Koko territory himself with his own Hearts in Atlantis much later), or for people who like horror novels before the ghosts appear. A dark fantasy about violence, time, and America, Koko is, on its surface, about four Vietnam Vets stopping a serial killer who seems to be a member of their own platoon from way back in ‘Nam.

Kicking off in 1982 at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Michael Poole (pediatrician, sad about his dead son), Tina Pumo (playboy restaurant owner), Conor Linklater (lovable loser), and Harry Beevers (their former-CO and a world-class prick), fall back into each other’s orbit thanks to the discovery of a bunch of mutilated dead bodies across Southeast Asia, all of them found with a playing card stuffed in their mouths across which is scrawled “Koko.” As the marketing copy on the dust jacket pants, “And now they joined together again on a quest that could take them from the graveyards and fleshpots of the Far East to the human jungle of New York…hunting an inhuman ghost of the past risen from nightmare darkness to kill and kill and kill…”

Well, kinda. Koko is a whodunnit but the “who” in question is not “Who killed these poor tourists in the fleshpots of the Far East?” or even “Who committed an atrocity in a village back in Vietnam that has haunted these men ever since?” but more, “Who committed a crime against the boy who grew into the man who committed this atrocity that caused him to kill these people?” and even further back to “Who committed the crime against the parents who committed the crime against this boy who grew into the man…?” and so on and so forth.

Even though the book circles around Vietnam relentlessly, it’s less about Vietnam as some sort of exceptional national experience and more about Vietnam as just one more All-American export. As one character says, “You saw at least as much violence outside the normal Milwaukee tavern as in the average firefight: inside…you saw a bit more.” Straub’s book is about how America is a factory that manufactures violence against women, immigrants, outsiders, and children, stamping red, white, and blue scars into their flesh that they carry forward into the future to pass on to others. Violence is our national pastime, or, as Ringnalda notes in Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War, “During the same time it took for 58,000 US personnel to die in Vietnam, a much larger number of civilians were violently killed by handguns here at home.”

Koko is a dark fantasy about how violence is handed down from adult to child, and its ultimate victim is Koko himself, unhinged by his own past, and only evil if you consider a hurricane or a wildfire evil, too. Without an evil villain at its core, Koko can’t deliver the standard genre thrills. Readers have to be patient with the messiness of life and have an appetite for digressions, red herrings, mistakes, and characters running off for hundreds of pages as they pursue leads based on faulty interpretations of the evidence. Straub is a classical writer whose imagination is formed less by horror movies and more by novels, so Koko is resolutely interior. Made up of one well-formed sentence tumbling into another, it’s totally devoid of what Straub himself would call “clumsy phrases.” Its prose is its own reward, dense and hallucinatory, offering up feverish jungle flashbacks and a nightmare vision of Milwaukee that will stick with you for a long time, like a dimly remembered fairytale that scared you as a child.

As with King, it’s the characters who captivate. Each of them arrives on the page stinking of themselves, endlessly entrancing, meticulously created out of millions of tiny details, all of them feeling real. I could listen to Tina Pumo yak about his restaurant’s troubles all day long, or read about Linklater’s attempts to keep it together on a building site all afternoon, or even listen to Beevers be a pompous asshole for hours. Even a character who could wind up as an exotic stereotype, like Maggie Lah, Pumo’s sexy, young Chinese girlfriend, feels spiky and messy and real.

It takes an outsider like Maggie—someone who’s not white, or American, or middle class—to point out the horror at the heart of Koko. Michael Poole offers a timid attempt at honesty when he meekly ventures, “I don’t think anything is ever really over,” but it’s Maggie who lays it on the line. “Nobody can walk away from things the way you think you walked away from Vietnam,” she snaps at Pumo. Koko is full of characters who find it more comfortable to leave the past in the past. I mean, come on, so your father abused you? Are you going to whine about it for the rest of your life? You got raped by Bill Cosby in 1969? Get over it. Your mom died of cancer ten years ago? Grow up. America had slavery, so what? That was in the past. Or, as Michael Poole’s irritated wife says about Vietnam, “Here’s what I understand. In war, you kill people. Children included. That’s what war is about. And when it’s over, it’s over.”

But nothing is ever really over, no matter how bad our pasts or how much we’d prefer to remain in our comfortable presents. Maggie knows about that bit of truth and, as she explains, only Americans think it’s a big revelation. “Everybody knows about it…Except a surprising number of middle-aged American men, who really do believe that people can start fresh all over again, that the past dies and the future is a new beginning.”

Nothing ends, no matter how horrible, it just becomes a part of who we are. I don’t know about you, but that’s a whole lot of horror to find in a mass market paperback.

Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his latest novel is Horrorstör, about a haunted Ikea.


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